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Lack of candidates continues to haunt Stuart Island Cemetery District Commission

Civil War veteran J.C. Douglass
Civil War veteran J.C. Douglass' grave is believed to be the oldest grave at Stuart Island Cemetery. The cemetery district is having trouble recruiting candidates for its commission.
— image credit: Contributed photo | Cheryl Opalski

The dearth of candidates is no more dire, and no more persistent, than on Stuart Island.

Two of three members of the island's cemetery district commission have moved off-island. The term of the commission's senior member, David W. Ericksen, is poised to be automatically extended because no one, including him, filed as a candidate. He didn't run for reelection after his last six-year term expired and, lacking candidates, his term has been automatically extended each year.

"I don't mind serving at all. There's not a lot of people here," said Ericksen, who’s been a cemetery district commissioner since at least the early 1980s. (He was last elected in November 2001, receiving 25 of 27 votes cast. There were two write-in votes. Total number of registered voters in that election: 42).

The commission meets once a year, in October, to set the budget for the next year and discuss cemetery needs. "We don't spend more than $100 or so a year," Ericksen said. "We have a small budget to maintain the cemetery and the grounds, and people come and help out when they can."

Of serving as a cemetery district commissioner, Ericksen said, "There's no pay involved, but a lot of prestige."

Ericksen is proud of the fact that the cemetery district doesn't levy a property tax — it has no need to, with $3,000 in the bank. "We charge people for interment, so there's no burden on taxpayers. I'm pretty happy about that."

Ericksen describes the cemetery — the first interment was for a Civil War veteran in 1911 — as a shady, peaceful place, "the most wonderful place you'd ever want to spend eternity."

By her own estimation, long-time commissioner Lavar Kilpatrick and her husband Tom moved to Anacortes about 6.5 years ago. But every October she faithfully made the trek to Friday Harbor, where Ericksen would pick her up in his boat for the annual meeting on Stuart. She said Ericksen asked her to continue on as a commissioner; she sold her house on Stuart but owns land there.

"There isn't a whole lot going on," she said of the cemetery district. "The cemetery is modest in size. Care is a community thing, people who choose to help with that."

Kilpatrick said she's not a candidate for reelection. But Elections Supervisor Doris Schaller said Friday that the county has considered Kilpatrick's position vacant since discovering she is registered to vote in Skagit County.

"Living on Stuart is labor intensive," Kilpatrick said. "We love the island, but we were getting a little long in the tooth and felt it pragmatic to be closer to hospitals and doctors."

Joanne Wolf’s position on the cemetery district commissioner is also on the ballot, though she didn’t file for election – neither did anyone else. She recently moved to Friday Harbor but owns a home on Stuart and is registered to vote there. She said she and her family stay at the Stuart Island home on weekends.

She’d like to stay on the commission. “The Ericksens live there full-time but didn't want to have just their family on the commission,” she said.

Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord and County Auditor Milene Henley, who is the county’s chief elections officer, disagree slightly on whether Wolf qualifies to serve on the commission. The law states you must be a resident of the district. But what does “residency” mean?

“Residency is where you reside,” Gaylord said. “It’s where your family lives the most. It’s what you put down on your driver's license, it’s the address on your tax return. It's where you sleep.”

Henley is a little more lenient; she’s willing to accept that Wolf has a home on Stuart Island and that she is registered to vote there. “That's where her heart is,” Henley said.

Meanwhile, there’s the issue of Kilpatrick’s former position on the commission. "I've spoken with one of the property owners there and asked him to go out and beat the bushes and find someone to run for that position,” Gaylord said. If no one runs, then Ericksen and Wolf will have to appoint someone. If they don’t, then the County Council will make the appointment. If Wolf is determined at some point to not be qualified to serve on the commission, leaving Ericksen the sole commission member, the County Council would appoint someone to succeed Wolf and Kilpatrick.

There is one possible solution to the lack of candidates on the 2.9-square-mile island: Annex the cemetery district into a larger, neighboring district.

Henley said Stuart Island residents could request to annex to a neighboring cemetery district, like San Juan Island’s. Annexation would have to be approved by San Juan residents too. “If that happened, they could be managed by a single commission,” Henley said.

One complication: Stuart Island property owners would have to pay the same property tax levy as San Juan Island residents – about 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.

There are three voter-created cemetery districts in the county: San Juan County Cemetery District No. 1 (San Juan Island), Cemetery District No. 2 (Stuart Island), and Cemetery District No. 3 (Orcas Island). Each has a three-member commission; each commissioner is elected for a six-year term.

Cemetery districts have a lot of authority. They are municipal corporations within the purview of the Constitution and laws of the state of Washington.

According to state law, they are “empowered to acquire, hold, lease, manage, occupy and sell real and personal property or any interest therein; to enter into and perform any and all necessary contracts; to appoint and employ necessary officers, agents and employees; to contract indebtedness, to borrow money, and to issue general obligation bonds.”

Cemetery districts can “levy and enforce the collection of taxes against the lands within the district.” Cemetery districts may “impose higher fees for cemetery plots and other customary services provided to persons not residing or owning taxable property within the district than it charges to residents and property owners so long as this fee differential is reasonable in relation to the criteria upon which it is based.”

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